International Rivers

The Forgotten Downstream Victims of Large Dams

An estimated 472 million people have likely been negatively impacted by the downstream impacts of large dams. This is the main finding of a scientific study which was just published by a group of eminent global freshwater experts. The study documents the impacts which dams have had on some of the world's most productive ecosystems, and recommend measures which can prevent the further loss of floodplains that sustain unique ecosystems and millions of people.

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Why Obama Should Take Notes from Cuba on a Green Energy Revolution

Barack Obama has proposed to invest $150 billion in renewable energy and energy efficiency over the next ten years. He need look no further than La Havana for inspiration. Cuba has successfully greened its energy sector over the last few years, and is now exporting its energy revolution. Will we soon benefit from Cuban expertise in cleaning up the US energy sector?

Just a few years ago, Cuba was plagued by frequent power blackouts – the result of inefficient generation in outdated thermal power plants, large transmission losses, and wasteful consumption. In 2006, the government responded to the power crisis by launching its "Revolución Energética." "We are not waiting for fuel to fall from the sky," Fidel Castro said at the time, "because we have discovered, fortunately, something much more important: energy conservation, which is like finding a great oil deposit." Laurie Guevara-Stone of Solar Energy International summarizes the impressive results of this energy revolution in the April issue of Renewable Energy World Magazine.

Cuba’s electricity utility has wasted no time in exploiting the "oil deposit" of conservation. According to Guevara-Stone, it mobilized consumers to replace more than 9 million incandescent light bulbs – almost 100% of the bulbs used in the country -- with compact fluorescents within six months. Under the utility’s program, more than 2 million energy-efficient refrigerators, 1 million fans, 182,000 air conditioners and 260,000 water pumps were sold.

The Ministry of Education has run a creative educational campaign on energy conservation since 1997. The state-run media cover renewable energy and energy conservation in a weekly television show, tv ads and news articles. The country’s 13,000 social workers contributed to the revolution by visiting homes, exchanging light bulbs, and educating consumers about energy conservation.

Where education is not sufficient, a revised tariff structure strongly discourages wasteful consumption. If consumers use less than 100 kWh of electricity per month, they pay the very low lifeline tariff of 0.4 US cents/kWh. The rate rises steeply with consumption, and reaches 5.4 US cents/kWh for consumers using more than 300 kWh per month.

To ramp up generation, the government built two wind farms and is currently installing 100 additional wind measuring stations. It also built a grid-connected solar electric plant and 180 micro-hydro power plants, and expanded the capacity of the country’s biogas facilities (mainly in the sugar sector).

Cuba has promoted renewable energy for off-grid electrification for many years. In the meantime, 8000 solar electric systems have been installed to electrify all schools, health clinics and social centers in the country, and many residential buildings. Cuba is adding 300 biogas plants which are based on animal waste this year, and plans to electrify the remaining 100,000 houses that have no access to electricity with renewable energy.

Finally, Cuba tackled the transmission losses by upgrading transmission cables, electrical posts and meters. By installing close to 2,000 diesel- and fuel-based micro-power plants, the country also eliminated the need for transmission to many communities altogether.
The Revolución Energética made power blackouts, which in 2004 and 2005 hit the country almost every day, a thing of the past. According to the UN’s Human Development Index (HDI), Cubans consumed an average 1,380 kWh of electricity per capita in 2007/08 -- more than ten times less than US consumers. Guevara-Stone points out that Cuba is the world’s only country which has achieved high human development (according to the HDI) without an unsustainable ecological footprint (as measured by the Living Planet index).

Just as Cuba is exporting doctors and teachers, the country also sends renewable energy experts abroad. Cuban technicians and scientists have installed solar panels and provided advice on energy efficiency in countries such as Bolivia, Honduras, Lesotho, Mali, Nigeria, South Africa and Venezuela. The country’s social workers have installed more than 2 million energy efficient light bulbs in homes in Haiti.

Cuba has won international recognition for its rural electrification programs for many years, for example by receiving the UN’s Global 500 award in 2001. In April 2007, UNEP executive director Achim Steiner praised the country’s energy revolution. He commented that "in terms of a short term response, it is quite remarkable how Cuba, under its economic conditions, managed to solve [the energy] crisis." At a news conference in Havana, Steiner added that "Cuba can look proudly at having solved a short-term crisis with a long-term commitment toward cleaner energy," and that UNEP wanted to "put a spotlight on Cuba's efforts."

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Why I Was Deported from Turkey

Back home in Berlin, I am overwhelmed by the show of support for our message that dams are a risky business. In India alone, one hundred activists and organizations signed a petition denouncing our deportation from the World Water Forum and thanking International Rivers for saying no to risky dams.

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Water-Harvesting in India Transforms Lives

As an advocate for sustainable water management, I have written many words in recent years promoting the virtues of rainwater harvesting. I've championed it at international conferences. I've visited projects on the ground and talked to farmers benefiting from it. I've met its most famous practitioner, Indian activist Rajendra Singh, and seen his impressive slide show about the work of his organization Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS).

But I was still astounded during a recent visit to Singh's home state of Rajasthan to see first hand just how profoundly the work of TBS has improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. I was also astounded to learn that this social and environmental transformation has been achieved at a tiny fraction of the economic -- not to mention human and ecological -- cost of providing water services with big dams.

"Generations before us never had the good fortune we have," Lachmabai, an elderly woman from Mandalwas village, told me as we sat on the edge of a large pond created by a newly built earth embankment. "Because of the water we are happy, our cattle are happy, and the wildlife is happy. Our crop yields have gone up, our forest is green, we have firewood, fodder for our cattle, and we have water in our wells."

The people of Mandalwas have built 45 water harvesting structures in the past 15 years, and more are planned. Whereas before farmers had only enough water for grains, now people can grow water-thirsty vegetables and cash crops. Villagers who were forced to survive on one meal a day now eat two to three times a day, and have a greater variety of more nutritious food. Women's chores of fetching water, firewood and fodder, and grazing and watering cattle have become much less time-consuming. The increased availability of fuelwood and tree leaves for fodder are key benefits of forest regeneration.

The water benefits I was witnessing came despite the region suffering one of its driest years in living memory, with some villages getting only a tenth of "normal" rainfall -- and this on top of three previous years of drought. According to the Indian People's Union for Civil Liberties, drought contributed to at least 40 starvation deaths in southeast Rajasthan in November. Many people are reported to be surviving by eating grass. The contrast between TBS-improved areas and other regions of Rajasthan is to say the least striking.

Mandalwas is just one of more than 1,000 villages where Tarun Bharat Sangh ("Young India Association") is working. Since 1986, TBS has helped villagers build or restore nearly 10,000 water harvesting structures in Alwar and neighboring districts in the hardscrabble Aravalli hills of northeastern Rajasthan, a few hours south of Delhi. Many additional structures have been built by villagers without TBS involvement. Villagers have also dug more than 1,000 wells to take advantage of the resulting rise in groundwater levels.

While water harvesting is central to TBS's success, it is only part of the reason why the organization has had such far-reaching impacts. By bringing villagers together to solve their severe water problems, TBS has empowered them to take control of other aspects of their lives. The results are seen in village rules to protect forests, in villagers uniting to force the government to provide teachers for their schools and to resist officials' demands for bribes, and in the widespread uptake of organic farming and improvements in traditional and modern health care practices.

Rajasthan is one of India's poorest states, and one of the most backward in terms of women's rights. TBS has created women's groups in a dozen villages and enabled them to play a more active role in village decision-making. Because of TBS, women are for the first time educating their daughters, stopping child marriages, and dropping the local custom of purdah (covering their faces in public). Kajoriben, a feisty woman activist from Rajaur village, told me that she had helped set up six women's savings groups in Rajaur and the neighboring village.

Catching the Monsoon

The water harvesting structures are mainly crescent-shaped earthen embankments (known as johads), or low, straight, concrete-and-rubble "check dams" built across seasonally flooded gullies (nalas). Johads have been built in Rajasthan for hundreds of years but many fell into disrepair during the 20th century due to the increasing role of the state in water management (and its fixation on large-scale projects) and the consequent weakening of village-level water management institutions and practices.

Monsoon rains fill ponds behind the structures. Only the largest structures hold water year round; most dry up six months or less after the monsoon. Their main purpose, however, is not to hold surface water but to recharge the groundwater beneath. Water stored in the ground does not evaporate or provide mosquito-breeding habitat, is protected from contamination by human and animal waste, and spreads out to recharge wells and provide moisture for vegetation over a wide area.

Several watercourses that had in recent decades held water only after monsoon storms now flow year-round due to the recharged groundwater (although parts of the rivers are drying up again due to severe, extended drought). Forests have regenerated because of the raised water table and because the need to protect forests is a key part of TBS's message. A recognition that good water management requires good land management is one reason for TBS's amazing success: among the benefits of regenerating forests on the rocky slopes of the Aravalli hills is that vegetation slows down run-off and reduces erosion, thus improving groundwater recharge and decreasing sedimentation of the villagers' ponds.

The beneficiary villagers contribute a quarter to a third of the cost of water harvesting structures in both cash and kind. In-kind contributions are normally in the form of free labor but they also can include construction materials and the value of land taken up by the structure and its pond. TBS contributes the remainder of the cost.

All the labor on the water harvesting structures is provided by local villagers. Apart from their in-kind contribution, they are paid for this work, meaning that construction brings cash into the villages. Funding for TBS has come from numerous sources including the Ford Foundation, Oxfam, various European government agencies, and the Indian and Rajasthani governments. With the exception of Rajendra Singh, who is from nearby Jaipur, all the TBS staff come from the villages in which the organization works. In addition to the full-time staff there are 230 part-time workers and thousands of volunteers helping to design and build structures, plant seedlings, protect forests from grazing animals and fuelwood collectors, and spread the TBS message to other villages.

Sharing the Water with Wildlife

Alwar is home to one of India's best known wildlife reserves, the Sariska Tiger Sanctuary. TBS has built numerous structures in the "buffer zone" around the sanctuary as well as inside the reserve itself. At first, sanctuary officials were hostile to TBS. But now they encourage TBS's work, realizing that the group has not only provided water sources for wildlife and helped regenerate the forest, but has also persuaded villagers to stop poaching. Furthermore, after a hard-fought struggle, including a case in the Supreme Court, TBS forced the closure of stone quarries that were causing considerable environmental damage inside the park (including lowering the water table and so diminishing the benefits of water harvesting). Thanks to reduced poaching and increased prey animals, the number of tigers has increased in recent years from 18 to around 25.

The most remarkable illustration of the Alwar villagers' enjoyment of the ecological benefits of water harvesting is the "People and Wildlife Sanctuary" created by the people of the twin villages of Bhaonta and Koylala. I walked up the narrow, rocky gully to the 12-meter-high Sakarawala dam, which marks the end of the sanctuary, with a group of village elders, the designers and builders of the dam.

The rules for the protected area are painted on the face of the stone-and-concrete buttress arch dam. Among the rules are "no hunting in this forest created by god;" "without permission of the gram sabha (village council) and sarpanch (headman) no tree may be cut because there is god in trees;" "do not allow cattle, goats or your camels to destroy the forest;" and "every drop of water in the watershed of this village should be made available to the wildlife and cattle of the village."

I sat on top of this dam and listened to the elders talk excitedly about the animals they've seen in the sanctuary -- including wild boar, hyena, monkeys, jackal, numerous types of deer and leopard. And although none of them have seen one, they told me with great pride that they'd found the tracks of a tiger beside the pond and that these had been officially noted by the state wildlife department. The villagers say that none of these animals were seen near the village before they started water harvesting and forest protection.

The people of Bhaonta have played a key role in an exciting local initiative in participatory river management. The Arvari River has become perennial in all but the driest years because of water harvesting. Villagers living in the Arvari watershed decided that they should draw up rules to ensure that the newly flowing river did not become over-exploited and to encourage forest protection. In 1999 representatives of village councils from 34 villages met and formally declared the creation of the Arvari Parliament.

Seventy-two villages now send representatives to the parliament. Besides dealing with forest and water use issues it has also forced the state government to rescind a license it had given to an outside contractor for fishing rights in the Arvari. While it has no legal authority, the parliament has the moral authority to be able to impose fines on rule-breakers and to resolve resource-use disputes between villages.

The Large Benefits of Small Things

Despite only minimal government support -- and often in the face of outright official hostility -- TBS's structures have provided irrigation water to an estimated 140,000 hectares. TBS calculates that around 700,000 people in Alwar and the neighboring districts benefit from improved access to water for household use, farm animals and crops. Each structure is small-scale, but the total benefits of TBS's work are most certainly large-scale.

Not a single family has been displaced to achieve these impressive benefits. Unlike big dams, the johads and check dams have not destroyed any rivers or submerged huge areas of forests and farmland: on the contrary, TBS's work has actually created rivers and forests.

TBS has contributed around 70 million rupees (US$1.4 million) in outside funding to the cost of the water harvesting structures. This works out to a cost of 500 rupees per hectare irrigated and 100 rupees ($2!) per person supplied with drinking water. An admittedly back-of-the-envelope comparison of these costs with those of the notorious Sardar Sarovar dam project (SSP) in Gujarat state gives startling results. Taking a conservative estimate of the total cost of SSP of 300 billion rupees ($6bn) gives a per-person cost of 10,000 rupees for drinking water supplied -- 100 times more than in Alwar. The cost of supplying one hectare with irrigation water from SSP works out to be 170,000 rupees -- 340 times more than in Alwar. Theoretically, if the budget for SSP was available to TBS-type water harvesters, they could provide drinking water to three billion people (half the world's population) while irrigating 600 million hectares (more than twice the world's irrigated area).

Now consider that TBS started work in Alwar at around the same time as the Gujarat government started construction on SSP. The people of Alwar district have for years been enjoying the benefits of water harvesting, while all but a tiny fraction of the supposed beneficiaries of Sardar Sarovar are still waiting to see a single drop of water. Furthermore, some 40,000 people have already been forced off their lands to make way for SSP, and hundreds of thousands more face displacement if the project is ever completed.

More than a billion people are estimated to lack decent access to drinking water. The World Bank and other dam builders and water privatizers use this shocking statistic to build up the case that $180 billion a year must be invested in the water sector and that multinational corporations are key in mobilizing this huge amount of money. But at Alwar costs, $180 billion would be enough to supply water to 15 times the world's current population. The needs of the one billion who lack water could be met for about the cost of a single major dam.

The draft of the new World Bank water resources strategy argues for new megaprojects by claiming that "easy and cheap" options have mainly been exploited. In reality, easy and cheap options such as rainwater harvesting have hardly even been looked at by the water Establishment.

Alwar is no utopia. It is a desperately poor region with deplorable government services and infrastructure, high levels of illiteracy and an appalling level of oppression for the majority of women. But if there is to be an answer to the acute water problems of India -- and the world -- I am convinced it lies with the rainwater harvesters and forest protectors of the Aravalli hills.

This article first appeared in the December 2002 issue of "World Rivers Review." Patrick McCully is Campaigns Director of Berkeley, California-based environment and human rights organization International Rivers Network. He is the author of "Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams" (Zed Books, 2001).


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